LL Cool J’s Album Mama Said Knock You Out Turns 25. Here’s How It Re-Defined His Career
“DON’T CALL IT A COMEBACK!! I’VE BEEN HERE FOR YEARS!!!”
Despite his protest in the opening lines of the title song to Mama Said Knock You Out, a triumphant return is exactly what that album was for LL Cool J when it was released 25 years ago on August 27, 1990. For many, LL had burst onto the scene nearly five years prior, with a show-stopping cameo in 1985’s Krush Groove. Speaking literally one word in the scene (“BOX!“), the tall, lanky 17-year old launched into a dynamic performance of his soon to be hit song “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” that set into motion one of the most successful and enduring careers that Rap has ever seen, but by the late ’80s, the eventual self-proclaimed G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All-Time) had lost his way.
One month after the Krush Groove cameo, LL’s debut album Radio was released to critical acclaim, described by the Village Voice as “the most engaging and original Rap album of the year,” and selling over a million copies. James Todd Smith’s authentic B-boy swagger cemented the new direction in which fellow Queen’s peers, Run-DMC, had taken Hip-Hop two years prior, shedding the furs and feathers of acts like Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five for what everyday youth were actually wearing in the streets–Kangols, jeans and, in LL’s case, Pumas. Cool J also became the franchise artist for the up-and-coming fledgling record label called Def Jam.
Def Jam co-founder, Rick Rubin, teamed with LL on his first album to hone a new sound for Hip-Hop; one that stripped away the melody and synths that drove the music by predecessors like Whodini and The Fat Boys, in favor of thumping 808 drums, aggressive DJ cuts and scratches, and little else. LL, with his irrepressible confidence and vocal fury, was the perfect complement to Rubin’s sonic landscape. The new sound and LL’s good looks and swagger garnered the respect of the fellas and earned his name (Ladies Love Cool James) with the ladies, making him the new King of Hip-Hop. Though Rubin would not produce on LL’s follow up album, Bad, the album maintained the same aural template Rubin set on Radio, added in the influences of fresh talent like DJ Pooh and Bobcat, and catapulted LL to the stratosphere with sales of more than 3 million copies.
While Radio solidified the image that LL portrayed in Krush Groove–a cocky and ferocious MC who did not take no for an answer–Bad fortified the first portion of his name, by building on his reputation as a ladies man. “I Need Love,” Rap’s first mainstream ballad, opened up an entirely new fan base for Cool J, reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and achieving success internationally. The song and album made LL Hip-Hop’s first solo worldwide superstar. At the age of 19, he had reached Rap’s pinnacle, with seemingly no limits on his potential. However, unbeknownst to him, his career was about to take a turn that would alienate his base.
1988 was a relatively quiet year for LL. He did not release an album, but the year did bring a reunion with Rick Rubin on the song “Going Back To Cali,” which was initially released on the soundtrack for Less Than Zero. Although the song fared decently, commercially, it was a radical departure from much of Cool J’s previous work and was received with mixed reviews. The song was neither a ballad nor one of LL’s pumped up fight anthems, and it featured a slow and lazy flow that took some longtime fans aback. In many ways, it was the perfect metaphor for an identity crisis the vaunted MC likely was experiencing, as he wavered between being the baddest MC on the planet and the tender sex symbol that was born on “I Need Love.” That sonic ambivalence likely was heightened by the departures of producers Rick Rubin and Bobcat from his camp. While neither parted for reasons related to LL, it did not change the fact that the two were among the most important in shaping his sound to date, and their absence left a void.
Subsequently, LL’s next album in 1989 was a head-scratcher for many Rap purists, at the time. The lead single, “I’m That Type of Guy,” retained the slow flow of “Going Back to Cali,” and was widely-viewed as a misstep. In many ways, the song was the antithesis of what had endeared LL to both men and women in the past. With its themes of putting men down for their inadequacies relative to himself and explicit statements like “I’m doing your girlfriend,” it was a direct middle finger to the fellas. And, by positioning women as nothing more than sexual conquests, it was a far cry from the romantic sentiments conveyed in “I Need Love.” The video built upon the song’s themes, showing LL alternately as a cat burglar, sneaking in to get your girl (and several others), and perched on a symbolic throne in a silk robe smoking a cigar with a cocksure and all-knowing grin painted on his face. He had crossed the line between cocky and arrogant, and was not looking back. While the song was one of LL’s most commercially successful singles, it’s telling that it was not included on his greatest hits compilation, years later.
So, for many, by the time 1990 rolled around, it seemed LL’s career was on the decline, if not over. Many of his peers from the early 80s like Run-DMC, The Fat Boys and Whodini, were in the sunsets of their careers, and they were being supplanted by new MCs with new styles, like Eric B. & Rakim, EPMD and N.W.A. For LL, who had had a six year stint since the 1984 release of his single “I Need A Beat,” he’d had a phenomenal run and one of the longest in Hip-Hop to date, at the time. However, just like that 17-year old kid depicted in Krush Groove, LL was not one to give up easily. Keenly aware of the new sounds that were taking over Hip-Hop, Uncle L teamed up with one of the driving forces behind the new sonic landscape. Marley Marl was already a revered DJ in the New York Hip-Hop radio scene, and he was actively involved in the careers of Hip-Hop’s hottest acts at the time, including Big Daddy Kane, Masta Ace, Kool G Rap, Biz Markie, MC Lyte, MC Shan and Heavy D & The Boyz. Marley was a superstar in his own right, and his pairing with LL was one of equals.
It was clear from early singles like “Jingling Baby (Remixed and Still Jingling),” “To Da Break of Dawn” and “The Boomin’ System,” that LL had a new sound. Gone were the sparse tracks, in favor of sample-based songs colored with soul and melody, often rooted in the sounds of James Brown that were dominating Hip-Hop at the time. In 1991, LL spoke to Rolling Stone about Marley’s involvement, saying “”Marley was definitely a great acquisition, a great move,’and ‘Jingling Baby’ is absolutely what turned things around.'” Marley, in turn, recently told Vanity Fair the union was accidental and almost didn’t happen. “Me and LL had . . . we had, like, semi-beef from the MC Shan era. So at first we weren’t really getting along. I was down with the Juice Crew, and he was down with the Def Jam crew, so it was almost like a friendly rivalry going on,” said the veteran producer. While LL was at WBLS, Marley’s radio station, promoting Walk Like a Panther, Marley mentioned how much he liked “Jingling Baby” and suggested that he do a remix. “Next thing you know, we started making other tracks…All of a sudden, we’re, like, eight tracks in, and I didn’t even have a contract to do an album with him. We were just grooving,” Marley said to Vanity Fair.
LL’s swagger remained in tact on Mama Said Knock You Out, but it had evolved from the unbridled cockiness of a teenager to the self-assured confidence of a grown man. His ferociousness had returned, as well, particularly on “To Da Break of Dawn,” widely-considered one of the greatest diss tracks of all-time, as he simultaneously dismantled both Kool Moe Dee and Ice-T, with lyrics like “Give me a lighter…Woof! Now you’re cut loose from that jheri curl juice” about the latter’s trademark perm. LL also sported a new more mature flow. It was more rhythmic than his caustic cadence of the past, and he delivered it with a deeper, more mature voice. It refined the tonal quality he had begun to explore on “Going Back to Cali” and “I’m That Type of Guy,” but replaced the smug undertones with the charisma that had led to his ascent in the beginning. As dynamic and appealing as those early singles were, however, there was nothing that signaled LL’s return like the title track, “Mama Said Knock You Out.”
With his thunderous opening, LL said what many had been thinking about him falling off but established it was not the case, at least in his mind, and, years before he would officially coin the term and proclaim himself the G.O.A.T., he declared himself to be peerless. “Don’t ever compare me to the rest that’ll all get sliced and diced, competition’s payin’ the price,” he bellowed on the song that was part self-affirmation and part war cry. The fury embodied in his voice was at a fever pitch and it was a pure shot of adrenaline. “It was a timing thing; it was my time to get it in the back. Every great champion at some point gets back on the ropes or takes something some people consider to be a fall. You just got to keep on doing what you’re doing and work it out,” LL said to Rolling Stone of the song. By the time he reached the end of the record with his repeated refrain of “DAMAGE,” his voice was nearly cracking, resembling its shrillness from earlier songs like “Rock The Bells” and “Jack The Ripper” for one of the last times, making the record the ultimate bridge between LL’s past and the newly vibrant future he was willing for himself by sheer, brute force.
That future retained the successful elements of the past. He had re-gained the respect of his male audience with lyrical explosions like the title track. Songs like “Around The Way Girl,” which was sexy, respectful and celebratory of strong, down-to-earth women, re-connected him with the grown up version of the women he had serenaded in “I Need Love.” Equally importantly, his new cadence and the sonic framework that DJ Marley Marl architected for him re-positioned him for a run through the ’90s and into the ’00s. His last significant charting single would come in the form of the 2004 Timbaland-produced song “Headsprung,” which would climb all the way to #4 on the Hot Rap Songs chart, along with the album The DEFinition, which reached the same slot on the overall album chart. That capped a run of nearly 20-years for LL as a chart-topper, an enviable position for any artist in any genre. In Hip-Hop, it is a feat that has not yet been accomplished by any other MC or group, though Snoop Dogg and Jay Z may be closing in on Mr. Smith.
The irony about Mama Said Knock You Out is that, while at the time LL considered it to be an insult to be accused of “coming back,” it is actually a feat about which he should be exceedingly proud. Hip-Hop, more than any other genre, has proven to be unforgiving. It is constantly cited as a young person’s “game,” though that is changing, and the attention span of its audience is often “on to the next one.” An extremely small number of artists have experienced a decline in their careers and come back to achieve equal or greater heights. Perhaps that distinction could go to Snoop, Jay or Eminem, but one is hard-pressed to name others. Before them all, however, it was Ladies Love Cool James Todd Smith who came back with a knockout in 1990.